Translation for Theatre

Would a rose by any other name sound as sweet? Emma Cole explains the issues and themes surrounding the translation of text for performance:






Every classicist is familiar with the innumerable choices involved when translating a text into another language. These are often governed by the purpose of the translation and the nature of the source text. Is a meter used, and should this be preserved? Is a literal translation required, involving word-for-word substitution, or can a looser style be employed, which captures the sense of the source by perhaps incorporating contemporary puns and idiomatic speech patterns at the expense of the exact word plays and native intonations contained in something like Aristophanes’ comedies? When translating a text for performance the gamut of issues to be considered extends even further, with writers required to take into account the aural and oral significance of translated speech. How easily can actors say the dialogue? Does it capture the unique speech patterns of each character? Does the translation flow in a way that guides the audience into comprehending the significance of each event in the play? Translating Greco-Roman plays for the stage is one of the most difficult tasks for a classicist, making it intriguing that the issues surrounding this process—for both translators and the theatre practitioners engaging with the play—are not more frequently discussed.

This is particularly surprising in light of the high percentage of plays currently being performed in translation in professional theatres. This includes numerous examples of Greek tragedy, with London audiences treated last year, for example, to The Trojan Women at the Gate Theatre, Antigone at the National Theatre, and Medea at Watford Palace. The process that scripts such as these go through, including whether the adaptors worked from the Greek text or a translated version of it, often goes unremarked in the scripts and production programmes. It is the purpose of the upcoming Theatre Translation Forum, which is being held at University College London in partnership with the Gate Theatre, to explore this practice and the common issues and problems encountered by those engaging in it.

Throughout the autumn and spring terms this academic year scholars and theatre practitioners will come together bi-monthly for a range of research seminars and associated practical workshops. Speakers will explore the intersection of theatre and translation in their scholarly research and reflect upon their practical experience writing translations for the stage. This will include an examination of the increasingly common twofold translation process used in contemporary theatre, with a number of academic contributors talking about their personal experience writing literal translations, and theatrical guest speakers discussing creating the subsequent adaptations that audiences encounter in the theatre. Particularly worthy of note is the number of papers on translated plays from the Greco-Roman canon, including academic inquiries into Seneca’s Phaedra, Euripides’ Bacchae, and Latin American adaptions of Greek tragedy, as well as a guest paper from the poet and author of the aforementioned Trojan Women, Caroline Bird, and a workshop by the director of Bird’s translation and Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre, Christopher Haydon.

The forum will not only leave participants with an enriched understanding of the multifaceted process which translated texts go through from page to stage, but will also result in the creation of a database of academics interested in theatre translation. This database will ensure that there are numerous scholars available to help those researching and conducting these practices in the future. The skills learned and the relationships fostered through the forum will assist scholars and practitioners in grappling with the many questions that plague those undertaking a translation for the stage.


For further information about the forum, including ticketing information, the programme, and convener contact details, please visit our webpage (


Credit for image: Iona Firouzabadi

Dearbhla Molloy and Lucy Ellinson in The Trojan Women at the Gate Theatre, 2012